The Black Hills of South Dakota is an island of mountains rising out of the western edge of the Great Plains. Given its rather remote location, some visitors fly into the Rapid City Regional Airport but the majority come by car, bus, motorhome, or motorcycle. It’s the largest city within a 300 mile radius and functions as the metropolitan center for dozens of smaller communities.
Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) is small, situated just about 20 minutes and half as many miles from the center of Rapid City. Flights arrive on a regular schedule from Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas and other major airports.
Spread out over 5,000 square miles, arguably the most accessible way to see the Black Hills is by car—or motorcycle, but we’ll get to that later. There are three main roads into and out of the region. Interstate 90 traverses east and west, Highway 16 runs south and west out of Rapid City, and Highway 79 takes us north and south through the area. The roads throughout the region provide breathtaking views of the area, but are often two-lane highways with tight curves which can make traveling in a motor coach or with a trailer more difficult.
Though several of the routes we’ll discuss take us through the Black Hills National Forest and are therefore free, there are fees associated with specific locations. Each of the national parks within the Black Hills have their own fee structure, and camping fees are almost always charged separately.
There are several towns and smaller communities in and around the Black Hills, so where we decide to stay depends largely on the kinds of activities we’d like to do. Rapid City is centrally located and most of the major attractions peppered throughout the Hills are within an hour drive.
With a wide variety of restaurants, shops, and hotel accommodations, this is often the best choice for those of us that want to try to see it all, or are traveling with bigger groups. Deadwood—and it’s sister city, Lead just a few miles further west— are great home-bases from which to explore the northern Hills with quick, easy access to Spearfish, Sturgis, and several smaller communities. Legal gambling in Deadwood has brought many large hotels. While lodging in Lead is often somewhat cheaper, the rich history and notoriety of Deadwood make it a wonderful choice particularly for groups without young children.
As the town closest to Mount Rushmore, Keystone is a great option for those of us that are more interested in exploring the monuments and the incredible outdoor recreation opportunities in the southern part of the Black Hills. Hill City and Custer are not far and the roads between the three cities are notoriously beautiful. Keystone offers the most lodging options of the three, though if we are planning to camp, Custer is probably the best place to stay.
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Summer is by far the most popular time to visit, though winter sports like skiing, snowmobiling, ice-climbing, winter hiking, and others bring adventure enthusiasts year-round. Traffic is heavy from May through September, and the world-famous Sturgis Rally brings upwards of a million motorcyclists to the region in late July and early August.
The Black Hills National Forest and many of the National Parks contained within are open year- round, though from October to May many services like flush toilets and showers are not available. In addition, winter road conditions regularly necessitate road closures and the weather changes quickly in the island of mountains, so driving with caution in the winter is always well advised.
It would be easy to spend a week or more in the Black Hills exploring all the outdoor recreation, tourist locales, art, and culture, but if we can spend three days, we can get a good taste of all those things. If we’ve got that much time, we could spend one day in the southern Hills—Custer State Park and the surrounding area, one day in the Northern Hills—Deadwood and Spearfish, and one day in Rapid City and the Badlands.
If we’ve only got two days, we’ll get the most from our time if we choose one part of the Black Hills and spend one day in the Badlands and Rapid City. We can squeeze the Badlands trip and one part of the Black Hills into a single day if we don’t mind spending most of the time in the car. Arguably the most stunning part of the Black Hills is on the southern side, so we could spend the morning in the Badlands and end our day with the Wildlife Loop driving tour in Custer State park which will leave us near Custer and Hill City for dinner options.
If we’ve only got time to spend half a day in the Badlands, the driving tour might be our best option. We’ll get to see a lot of the almost other-worldly landscape that makes this place so visually stunning and even catch a little of the history and geology. There are several hikes we can do if we’d like a more intimate experience with the formations or we can stick to the pull-outs and overlooks for photo opportunities.
At first glance the Badlands can appear to be just a vast, dusty stretch of desolate landscape but the Ben Reifel Visitor Center gives us a glimpse of what’s really in all those layers of sedimentary rock. Not only can we visit the museum and bookstore here, but this facility is also home to a world-class Fossil Preparation Lab. It’s especially unique because visitors can actually watch the scientists at work in addition to viewing the fossils themselves.
As we come through the park back toward Rapid City, the White River Visitor Center is an ideal place to learn about the relationship between this geography and the indigenous communities that live here. This side of the park is somewhat less traveled than the other side and so presentations here aren’t as regular. It’s best to just stop and ask at the information desk.
There are a lot of beautiful places to watch the sunset, but bearing witness to the radically changing colors of these formations as the sun drops off the edge of the horizon is an especially awe-inspiring experience. For many visitors, picking a spot along the Badlands Scenic Drive is the perfect spot to enjoy a sundowner. Or stay on and see the nights sky without any light pollution.
Deadwood’s colorful history makes this an ideal place for urban adventures of all kinds. The Tatanka: Story of the Bison is essentially an art installation, just a mile north of town and it’s a great place to get out of the car and wander among the life-sized statues. Once we’ve parked the car in town, we can explore on foot. The Adams museum is a great place to start because we’ll have the chance to see some of the places featured in exhibits there.
Just to the north of Deadwood is another presidential monument: the Theodore Roosevelt Friendship Tower. We’ll see signs for the picnic area just a couple miles northwest of Deadwood and a short distance on FSR 133 off of Highway 85. It’s a short hike and relatively easy, but views are wonderful.
If we’re interested in getting up-close and personal with some of the fascinating historical characters from Deadwood’s wild-west-mining-town days, the Mount Moriah Cemetery is the place to do it. There’s a paved path that will take us through the neighborhood and cemetery and we’ll get some history about Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, among others, along the way.
This old railroad system turned recreational trail runs some 100 miles through the Hills connecting more than a dozen Black Hills communities and providing wonderful recreational opportunities. We can access the trail from almost all of the old mining towns through which it runs, including Deadwood. It’s history as a railroad line means the trail is level, and while there are several inclines, they aren’t especially steep. Leashed pets are welcome on the trail and we’ll likely run across bikers, hikers, runners, fisherman, and others on this old, and well-loved line. We will need to purchase trail passes, but they are available at all trail heads.
A drive through Spearfish Canyon is one of the most beautiful ways to get from Deadwood to Spearfish or vice-versa and Bridal Veil Falls is right next to the road. There are also lots of places to hike along the way. If we have time to do one of these hikes, the Devil’s Bathtub trailhead is easily accessible from the road though the hike is longer and has some steep sections. Another option is the Iron Creek Trail which is significantly easier. The trail itself isn’t marked, but we’ll notice the parking area near the Iron Creek Bridge. If we’re arriving later in the day, having dinner at the Latchstring Inn or the Spearfish Canyon Lodge is a wonderful experience. It’s a good idea to have reservations for the restaurant, especially in the Summer, but they aren’t necessary and if we have a little time to wait for our table, we can take the short hike down to Spearfish Falls – the trailhead to the waterfall is right next to the restaurant. It’s a short hike, though there are quite a few stairs.
Downtown Friday Nights are a seasonal fixture for visitors to the Spearfish area. Often visitors camping in the area come into town to enjoy a meal at one of the many restaurants with outdoor seating, and then join in the party. City officials block off a couple downtown streets from 6pm – 9pm so we can shop local businesses and artists or enjoy some activities with the kids against a festival-style backdrop of live music and family fun.
If we’re going to press on to the west past Spearfish, Devil’s Tower makes an intriguing detour. It’s about a half hour from Sundance, Wyoming, north of interstate 90 and the road from Sundance will take us back through some beautiful portions of the Wyoming side of the Black Hills. If we’ve got the time to take the more scenic route, we can travel from Spearfish to Belle Fourche, then take Highway 24 toward Aladdin, Wyoming and on to Devil’s Tower. There are places to stay and some services but these are small towns so we’ll either want to return to the South Dakota side of the Black Hills or continue on to Sundance or even Gillette, Wyoming.
Custer State Park is rich with recreational opportunities of all kinds and one of the first opportunities is at Sylvan Lake. We can kayak, fish, swim, paddle board or just play in the lake and in the heat of summer, this is a favorite activity after completing a hike in the area. There are short walking trails around the lake, but if we’re looking for longer hikes, there are several trailheads at the edge of the lake. Two of the local favorites begin at the same trailhead: Little Devil’s Tower and the Black Elk Peak hike. Both gain significant elevation and require a good amount of time. The Black Elk Peak trail is both the longer and more difficult of the two, arriving at the highest point in South Dakota, though if we’re going to do this trail we should have at least half a day to spend here.
Needles Highway takes us further into the park and we’ll get to see some of the most stunning vistas and breath-taking rock formations in all of the Black Hills. It is a tight and very winding two-lane road so we’d be well-advised to take it slow and keep moving, allowing at least an hour to do the whole trip. There are several places to pull out and snap some photos though, and many people love to get a photo of the Needle’s Eye near the tunnel of the same name. We should keep in mind that the road is closed in the winter, and even in the spring and fall, snowstorms do happen.
As we wind through the needles, we’ll come near a specific formation called the Cathedral Spires. There is a very popular hiking trail that will take us directly to the Cathedral Spires and we’ll see signs for it a short distance after the tunnel. This hike isn’t long—just over one-and-a-half miles—but there are some steeper sections so we should allow at least an hour and a half and carry water with us.
This is one of the most popular scenic drives in the Black Hills and offers many opportunities to hike, camp, play in the lakes, or just drive along and catch glimpses of the wide array of wildlife. When we come upon any of the creatures that call this place home, particularly the Bison, Big Horn Sheep, Deer, and Elk, it’s important that we stay in the vehicle. Even those these animals come right up to the car, they aren’t tame, so don’t roll down your window to pet or feed them.
Certainly the most famous national monument in the United States, Mount Rushmore is often top of the list for visitors to the Black Hills. Which, of course, means that it’s often very busy—especially in the summer months. Be prepared for long lines, and fees to park in the most convenient parking areas. There are several different attractions at the monument itself, so we can easily spend several hours here if we want to. The sculpture is impressive and the history is fascinating, so many like to end their tour of the Hills here to catch the nightly lighting ceremony. If we have pets along, they won’t be allowed inside the facility so we’ll need to make other safe accommodations for them. There are concessions available at the monument or we can plan to have dinner in Keystone or Hill City just before or just after our visit.
Closeby is the significantly larger Crazy Horse Memorial depicting Tasunke Witko, best known as Crazy Horse. Famous for his role in the resounding defeat of Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Learn more about the Oglala Lakota people and the sculptor the Indian Museum of North America.
Given the expansive vistas of the Needles, hiking in Custer State Park ranks top for many visitors and locals. The Sunday Gulch Trail will provide us some good exercise and incredible scenery, but we’ll be climbing nearly 800 feet over almost four miles so we’ll need some time for this one. We will get to hike through the thick groves of trees for which the Black Hills is famous and see some breathtaking rock formations so it is definitely worth it.
The Black Elk Peak Trail is not quite as strenuous, though it is significantly longer at just under 6.5 miles so we’ll want to be prepared for a long uphill hike. Views from the well-maintained trail are gorgeous and we’ll wander through the forest past large rock formations to arrive at the lookout tower that sits atop the highest point in the State, almost 1,500 feet above the trailhead.
Crow Peak just outside Spearfish boasts some great hiking and mountain biking trails with panoramic views of the surrounding Hills. The namesake trail is popular and considered moderate in difficulty, though we’ll be traversing 1,560 feet up along nearly 7 miles of trail. This trail is a great option if we’re going to be in Spearfish, Belle Fourche, Deadwood, or Lead overnight.
If we’re planning to spend some time in Spearfish Canyon, we’ll get some great views and a chance to explore some shallow caves on the Community Caves Trail. This one is short and sweet, at just under 200 feet of elevation climb and a little over a half a mile in length. It’s especially breathtaking in the winter when waterfalls in the caves are frozen over, though the hiking can be more dangerous that time of year as well.
There are two significant hills in Rapid City fondly known as M-Hill and Skyline drive. Both have several hiking and biking trails that offer the hiking-in-the-woods feel, right in town. Almost any of these trails can be done in just a couple hours and are a great option to get some beautiful views of the city right in town. Cowboy Hill Traill is perhaps the most beautiful of them and is only moderately difficult so it is accessible to many visitors.
Right in the center of Rapid City, Dinosaur Park is one of the favorite places for kids to explore. After a fairly steep stair-climb, the park features 7 large-scale dinosaur sculptures set along the spine of the hill that runs divides the community between east and west. Kids love to explore among the sculptures and parents appreciate the beautiful views. It’s just a short drive from almost anywhere in Rapid City and we can spend as much or as little time here as we choose.
For families with kids that are a little older, the Black Hills Playhouse is a rare and special treat. It’s a non-profit, performance theater venue that’s been around for more than 75 years. Set in the southern Hills near Custer, with a little planning it’s an ideal location to spend the evening after exploring the surrounding area.
The Black Hills plays host to several significant annual events each year, perhaps most notably the Sturgis Rally. Every August for more than 75 years, bikers have congregated here to enjoy world-class motorcycling through the gorgeous Black Hills. Massive bars and campgrounds host more than a million bikes and bikers that flood into the area to eat, shop, attend some of the biggest concerts in the world, and—of course, ride. Generally held the first full week of August, for many locals and most of the surrounding communities, the last weeks of July and early weeks of August are utterly devoted to the event.
Light pollution continues to make star-gazing more and more difficult around the world, but out in the wide open, sparsely populated plains of South Dakota, the Badlands are a perfect place to host an annual Astronomy Festival. Night-sky enthusiasts of all kinds join astronomers, researchers, and guests to explore the stars with telescopes, and participate in other demonstrations and events as well. The dates and activities comprising the festival change each year, so it’s best to check with the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for current information.
It’s always possible to see large herds of bison wandering through the Black Hills and especially Custer State Park, but it is an entirely different kind of experience to witness nearly 1,500 of the animals pounding across the prairie. The Buffalo Roundup has become a festival of art and entertainment as well, though it was originally just a necessary seasonal activity. Held during the last weekend in September, the event is open to public viewing, but has become so popular over the years it is almost essential to make reservations to camp, or arrive very early in the morning for a chance to actually see the heard being moved through the park.
Layer Up: The weather in Rapid City is quite literally harder to predict than almost anywhere in the US because of the nature of an island of mountains in the middle of the plains. Not to mention the variations due to altitude and time of day. This means that no matter the season, it’s always important to have at least a sweatshirt and a waterproof jacket available. A hat is a also a good idea in the shoulder seasons.
Smart Shoes: The same can be said for footwear. Depending on how much hiking we want to do, and where, we might get by with street shoes, but more often than not we’ll face water crossings, dusty or muddy trails, and other trail conditions and the whole experience will be more fun with happy feet. We’d be well advised to have an extra pair of socks, too, just in case.
Hydration Packs or Water Bottles: Most places in the Black Hills region are within an hour or so of a community with amenities, but some areas are more remote so it’s always a good idea to carry water. Especially if we plan on doing any hiking. The Black Hills get downright hot during the summer: temperatures are often in the 100s at least a few days each year.
Snacks: Even short hikes can take more than half a day when you consider the amount of time it might take to drive to the area you’d like to explore. Especially if you’ve taken extra time to enjoy the views on the drive. Keep snacks handy, but remember not to feed the wildlife—it’s against the law in National Parks—and carry your trash out with you.
Binoculars: Many locations in the Hills are home to an array of wildlife and binoculars will give you a much better chance to see them up-close and still keep a safe distance.
Headlamps: The terrain in the Black Hills varies widely and can mean that while there might be daylight left on your watch, if the sun is behind a hill or ridge-line, you may have to hike in conditions that are darker than you expected.
Sunscreen: The sun can burn your skin no matter the time of year. Reflected sunlight in the winter can burn skin just as badly as the hot summer sun. Keep sunscreen handy and remember to reapply.
Umbrella or Hooded Jacket: Unexpected rainstorms happen often around here, even when the forecast is for a 0% chance. Keep an umbrella in the car and a hooded raincoat in your backpack to keep you dry no matter the conditions.